“In 1959, we were living a dream. Everything was happening in ways that would have been inconceivable two years earlier.” — Francois Truffaut
Today it would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that film is not art, that directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are not artists on par with an Ibsen or a Chekhov, but these are relatively recent concepts in cultural studies. In terms of cultural cache, film had always been the red-headed stepchild of the stage, a prejudice held over from the silent film era. Films considered grand critical successes were often based on dramas or novels. After all, what was a movie besides a filmed stage performance? What was the camera besides an obstacle to be overcome between actors and audience? And what was a director besides a hired technician whose job it was to massage another’s work into something commercially viable?
Film had been analyzed before. Throughout the 1930s, German intellectuals of what came to be known as the Frankfurt School (mainly Sigfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno) had written about the “distraction industries” from a sociological perspective in the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. But there were no critical journals dedicated to film studies, just industry magazines like Variety that concentrated on movie reviews, gross earnings, who was wearing what, etc. That’s why Cahiers Du Cinema was a game changer. The journal, founded in 1951 by a small clique of fanatical French film enthusiasts, would go down as one of the most important developments in the history of film, not only modernizing the form, but also altering the very foundation of how we talked about it. In fact, so deeply embedded are the French New Wave’s core tenets to contemporary film discourse–the auteur theory, shot-for-shot mise-en-scene, the concept of caméra-stylo, or “camera-as-pen”–they are simply givens of our critical nomenclature.
Truffaut’s 400 Blows was the breakout New Wave film at Cannes in 1959, along with Resnais’s and Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. But while the latter belied Resnais’s slick professionalism and Duras’s gifts at complex narrative, 400 Blows was a different type of New Wave experience. Truffaut’s childhood parallels that of his child lead, and it was one of the first times in the history of cinema where a director drew upon the mundane and painful aspects of youth, not in an empathetic, reformatory manner, but simply to show childhood as it really is through the eyes of someone living it: a panache of escapism, confusion, complacency, boredom, occasionally run-ins with the authorities. Like his protagonist, Truffaut was a lower-class kid, bouncing within a system of reformists, with a father he never knew and a mother who was indifferent at best. He found refuge and escape in the cinema, thus beginning a lifelong obsession with American film that he shared with his peers at Cahiers Du Cinema, many of whom would be at the cutting-edge of European filmmaking before the decade was out. But it was Truffaut who first kicked that door open, allowing him the financial means to fund other projects, which he generously did, such as Godard’s Breathless the following year. Somewhat gun-shy politically, he was never the militant activist that Godard later became, a split which eventually led to their falling out with one another and never reconciling before Truffaut’s untimely death from cancer in 1984.
In many ways, the naturalism of 400 Blows is now the norm. But in 1959, it was unheard of for most directors to improvise in the ways that Truffaut did, to give any actor, much less a child, the ability to go off script and just be themselves. The interrogation session where Atonie is being questioned, with Jean-Pierre Léaud running with lines of dialogue that seemed fitting to him, is one of the most melancholic and impressive scenes in all of the New Wave. Indeed, Truffaut seemed psychologically intertwined with his Antoine Doinel doppelgänger, as Jean-Pierre Léaud would return three times to play the same character again over the next twenty years: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).